Saturday, February 27, 2010

Lingering Items--Quantitative Analysis Edition



In the infamous words of Alex Baldwin in “State and Main”, well, that happened.

The Cleveland Indians signed Russell Branyan, against all sense and logic and this is what qualifies as good news in Cleveland. Back problem, schmack problem. If he can just somehow repeat his career year (and I’ll disregard the inherent oxymoronic nature of that phrase) then the Indians have a chance to, what, win 73 games instead of 71?

Branyan is an awful player living off a singular ability to hit long home runs on occasion. As a player, he’s less dimensional than even Mel Hall. I could spend the next several paragraphs providing the iron clad case against Branyan but at this juncture what’s the point? Indians-President-In-Waiting Mark Shapiro already struck the deal.

Here’s the issue with the Indians as I see it. They operate in an economically-depressed market in an ethically-challenged league led by a thin-skinned commissioner with the business sense of a Russian peasant. They are owned by folks committed to conflicting goals of winning a World Series while maintaining a modest payroll. To accomplish these goals the only competitive advantage they can muster is to find off-the-radar players through their use of quantitative analysis about any and every professional and amateur player in the universe. The problem is that irrespective of what that analysis tells them, they still end up with players like Branyan.

I’ll challenge Shapiro and General Manager-In-Waiting Chris Antonetti to make the statistical case for Branyan. Go ahead, I’ll wait. The truth is, they can’t. Sure, you can highlight some things, downplay others and come up with a scenario that paying Branyan $2 million for the numbers he projects is a relatively low risk proposition in the context of the bizarre economics of baseball.

But Branyan is simply a baseball vagabond, nothing more. He’ll drift from city to city year after year and won’t take root anywhere. He’s not good enough to invest in long-term and apparently isn’t awful enough to move on to his real life’s work.

What good, though, is the Indians’ so-called competitive advantage, its front office smarts, if they are put to this kind of use? Maybe Branyan’s name was spit out by some hybrid program Antonetti cobbled together, but if he is the end result then it may be time to develop a new program.

There is just something about all of this that I find terribly depressing. For the last two seasons the Indians have been dumping nearly every asset of value as if the Dolans were trying to re-enact the movie Major League. In doing so they’ve stripped the fans of any real semblance of hope and replaced it with a lingering sense of dread.

But every year is a new year and no sport regenerates faint feelings of hope more than baseball. And yet the Indians are barely in camp and they’re already dropping turds in the punchbowl, saying, basically, Branyan is the best that we can do.

This season and the next several are now officially being played for the baseball purists, that rare breed of person that loves the poetry of the game and would be just as content to watch the Washington Nationals play the Kansas City Royals as they would be to watch the Indians play anyone.

For them and maybe a few others, watching some young players get good enough where they'll be too pricey to sign long-term is about all that's on the horizon to keep them satisfied. Meanwhile the more meaningful games will be played elsewhere once more.

**


The NFL combine is open for business which means, of course, that the NFL’s official Disinformation Campaign is in full swing. The combine has morphed into a traveling circus, except that it sticks around longer and is even less entertaining.

Teams approach it like an amateur approaches a no-limit Texas Hold’em tournament in Vegas, as if the point of it all isn't to win but to bluff well. So scared are teams of tipping their hand about what they plan in both free agency and the draft that instead of really using it for its intended purpose it's now just about showing how uninterested you really are in the guys that interest you most.

I’ll make this easy for any fan who is trying to glean insight about the Browns’ plans from what’s taking place at the combine. Turn off your television set. Hide your morning Plain Dealer (if you still subscribe to it, which you probably don’t). Ignore WKNR (which you’re probably doing already). Nothing that takes place at the combine has any relevance to who the Browns might sign or draft. It’s really that simple.

If you don’t believe me and instead want to follow the arc of the various Tony Grossi musings on this subject, then drop me a line in another week or so and let me know how accurate the following is: the Browns are interested in a quarterback, or they aren’t. Maybe they really want a right tackle to bookend with Joe Thomas on the left. They like Sam Bradford if he’s not hurt. Same goes for Colt McCoy. Jimmy Clausen reminds them too much of Brady Quinn or maybe he doesn’t. The Browns are going to trade down or else trade up. They will package some of the draft picks they got last year for even more next year or else they’ll concentrate on the defense.

There you have it. Your update from the combine. Plan accordingly.

**


I continue to remain puzzled as to exactly why general manager Mike Holmgren retained head coach Eric Mangini. Most of what Holmgren's said lately, particularly as it concerns Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn is a flat-out repudiation of how Mangini ran the team last season.

From nearly the day he arrived on campus last season, Mangini set up an ill-conceived quarterback competition. He never affirmatively settled on either and as a result made both unprepared and tentative.

From nearly the day he arrived on campus, Holmgren has intimated how ridiculous the whole situation really became. Speaking to reporters at the combine, Holmgren couldn't have been more dismissive of Mangini's handling of the situation. As reported in the Akron Beacon Journal, Holmgren said “whoever's playing has to believe you have his back. That confidence level, even though you make a mistake, 'I'm still OK. I'm going to get better.' He's got to feel that. It's all part of coaching that position.” Ouch.

But there was more. “Someone's got to play a full season, not two games here, off two games, three games, off two, that doesn't work. Because whoever's playing, the first interception, everybody in the stands yells for the other guy. And then you switch them. It doesn't work. So pick one, commit, coach them up, build confidence, make them better and go. And surround them with good people.”

That's about as opposite of an approach as one can get to how Mangini handled the situation last year. Much of what Mangini does, actually, is to prey on a player's insecurities as a means of motivating him, as in “if you don't want me to keep yanking you out of there, don't throw an interception.”

It sounds, though, that Holmgren is going to make it easier on Mangini. Rather than leave him with the decision on who to start, Holmgren has removed Mangini completely from the process and put it in his own hands and those of general manager Tom Heckert.

In a more subtle way, Holmgren and Heckert also have repudiated Mangini by indicating that they tend to make a tender offer to running back Jerome Harrison. On the surface that may seem like an easy decision given what Harrison accomplished at the end of last season. But just remember that Mangini almost steadfastly refused to give Harrison an opportunity at all until he was forced to because of injuries. Mangini was more infatuated with the rookies he brought in and with Jamal Lewis, even though Lewis clearly was washed up. Even when Harrison would excel in spot duty, as he did in the first Cincinnati game last season, he found himself buried the next week.

It's a nice outcome for Harrison, a back that former head Romeo Crennel also didn't treat particularly fairly. As for Mangini, it's once again a reaffirmation that his input into personnel decisions will be limited at best.

**


I actually believe Holmgren when he says that he hasn’t made a decision yet on whether to keep or jettison Anderson and Quinn. I also think that this is the lynchpin decision for the Browns. If you really want a clue into their thinking, the next key date on the calendar is March 19. That’s when Anderson is owed his next roster bonus, a tidy $2 million.

Former general manager Phil Savage has been bashed by many, including me, for a whole laundry list of sins. But his handling of Anderson and his contract situation isn’t one of them. Anderson had the good fortune of having a breakout, Pro Bowl season during a free agent year. Even with Quinn lurking in the background, Savage was able to sign Anderson to a very club friendly contract that has had all sorts of convenient off-ramps attached to it. March 19th is just the latest.

For a team still building (you can’t rebuild something that wasn’t ever built right in the first place), it helps when you aren’t saddled with the previous regime’s baggage. Savage may not have been able to foresee his own demise but he was at least able to foresee the likely scenarios involving Anderson and Quinn and plan accordingly.

In much the same way as he did with Anderson, Savage also signed Donte Stallworth to a club friendly contract. Stallworth proved himself the worst free agent signing in history in his first season and yet head coach Eric Mangini still pulled the trigger on him for a second season, only to see that blow up in his face the very next day.

There are two points to all of this. First, it’s so much more myth than reality that Savage left the franchise a mess. Savage had a spotty history in the draft and left this team without much talent, but from a business perspective, the team was not being run like the Scranton branch of Dunder-Mifflin as Mangini implied all last season. Second, because the franchise is not the mess that Mangini liked to say it was, it is actually well positioned to build in earnest and in the right way far more quickly than most realize. Having, finally, a credible head of the organization was all that was needed and now that box has been checked.

**


Speaking of cleaning up the last few dirty dishes, the other news of the week from Browns camp is that, surprise surprise, the Browns and former general manager George Kokinis have settled their differences.

There was no way this wasn’t going to get settled. Terms are confidential, of course, but just know that Lerner is parting once again with a boatload of money for another former executive. Call it the high cost of his own mismanagement.

The only thing that bothers me about all of this is the whisper campaign that’s been going on about Kokinis. According to reports he was overwhelmed from day one, came into work late, left early and occasionally would nap at his desk like George Kostanza.

I don’t know whether any of this was true but it’s hard to imagine they are given how little time Kokinis was on the job. But let’s assume it is true. What does that say about Mangini, the person who handpicked his own boss? The kinds of things being said about Kokinis are major red flags. How could Mangini have missed them?

I rather doubt he did miss them. I just consider the vested interest of those spreading those rumors and place them into that context, just I place it into context that Mangini has a distinct patter of burying former close friends when it furthers his own interests.

Putting all that aside, though, this was a distraction that’s now been resolved, allowing the Browns to truly look forward. It’s about time.

**
Here's a question that keeps me pondering as I read more and more about the upcoming NFL draft: why is Jimmy Clausen considered a first round pick?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Another Stain on Michigan

There will come a point when the University of Michigan acknowledges that the hiring of Rich Rodriguez as its head football coach was an abject mistake, but apparently that time is not right now.

On the heels of the NCAA issuing a notice of five potential major violations committed under the auspices of Rodriguez, all incoming athletic director David Brandon can say of relevance at the moment is that Rodriguez will remain the football coach. We’ll see.

To put these allegations into context, remember two salient points. First, the University of Michigan football program had never previously been accused of committing NCAA infractions. Second, Rodriguez has been with the Wolverines for a mere two seasons. As the kids like to say, you do the math.

That means, of course, that in his two short seasons, Rodriguez has dropped the program to historic lows both on and off the field. Ohio State fans can surely gloat because, well, it is something to gloat about. Watching Michigan get its comeuppance will always be satisfying. But at a much different level, seeing a storied program like Michigan sink to its current depths tarnishes the greatest rivalry in college football. That’s to neither Ohio State’s nor the Big Ten’s benefit.

The allegations against the Michigan program and Rodriguez in particular are serious stuff. Let’s run down the list:

1. From January 2008 through September 2009, a time period which essentially covers the moment Rodriguez stepped on campus to the moment the Detroit Free Press outed him, the Michigan program exceed the permissible limit on the number of coaches by 5 when quality control staff members, supposedly noncoaching staff members, were actually engaged in on-and off-field coaching activities. The NCAA gives 4 specific instances. You could, maybe, rationalize exceeding the limit by 1, but 5?

2. From January 2008 through at least September, 2009, the football program violated NCAA legislation governing playing and practice seasons when it permitted football staff members to monitor and conduct voluntary summer workouts, conducted impermissible activities outside the playing season, required players to participate in summer conditioning activities or face discipline and exceed time limits for football-related activities. The NCAA lists 10 separate incidents. One might be a misunderstanding and two a mistake but 10 sounds an awful lot like a pattern.

3. A graduate assistant football coach under Rodriguez, Alex Herron, allegedly provided false and misleading information to both university and NCAA investigators about these incidents. In particular, the coach in question claimed he was only briefly present at the beginning of certain “voluntary” summer conditioning sessions but in actuality monitored and conducted the activities. When the dust settles, it will be Herron will become the convenient scapegoat, just watch.

4. The allegations in #1 and 2 above demonstrate that Rodriguez failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance within the football program and failed to adequately monitor the duties and activities of the quality control staff members and various assistant coaches.

5. Based on the allegations in #1 and 2 above, the athletic department failed to adequately monitor its football program to assure compliance with NCAA requirements. The NCAA gives two specific examples, the most damning of which is that shortly after Rodriguez was hired, the university’s compliance staff became aware of and concerned with the employment of the so-called quality control staff members but didn’t adequately follow up.

When you look at the last two allegations it makes you wonder how Rodriguez can survive the inquiry. Not only is he personally attacked for running a program that plays fast and loose with NCAA regulations, but he also is attacked by implication for essentially running roughshod over the university’s compliance staff so that they wouldn’t inquire further about their concerns.

The usual disclaimers of course apply. These are only allegations and neither Rodriguez nor the university has been found guilty of anything at the moment. But given the specificity of the allegations and the fact that the university has tacitly admitted, though downplayed, certain key aspects of the allegations, it’s fair to say at this point that there is more than smoke emanating from the Michigan campus at the moment.

Following the release of the allegations, university president Mary Sue Coleman said all the right things about taking the allegations seriously, but you have to wonder if that’s really the case.

According to the Associated Press account, Brandon admitted that mistakes were made though he didn’t get specific and seemed to take comfort, oddly, in a kind of “the sun will come out tomorrow” sort of way, that the university at least wasn’t charged with a loss of institutional control. But given that a few years ago the basketball program was found to have violated certain NCAA regulations, it basically is charged with being a repeat offender. I guess it’s a fine line between the two but it doesn’t seem like anything Brandon should be bragging about at the moment.

Rodriguez wouldn’t even go as far as Brandon, couching his remarks in the hypothetical, as in “if violations were made” it was just, essentially, a silly misinterpretation of the rules. In a nutshell this is exactly why Rodriguez shouldn’t be allowed any where near a college football program, let alone a storied, tradition-rich program like Michigan.

In short, Rodriguez just doesn’t get it. He would have people believe that his reading of the rule book allowed assistant coaches to oversee supposedly voluntary summer conditioning drills while letting players know that if they don’t volunteer for these drills there would be consequences. These are about as basic as the rules can get.

If the various Michigan Wolverine blogs are any indication, Michigan fans have already sloughed this off as much ado about nothing. They’ve parsed the allegations, concluded that they sound worse than they really are and, hey, doesn’t everyone do the same thing? Well, no, but I understand their point of view. It’s why they’re fans.

When the Maurice Clarett allegations hit, almost none of which ever panned out, Ohio State fans went into the same bunker mentality. But there is a difference and it is the difference between Jim Tressell and Rich Rodriguez and that’s the larger point.

Standing outside a maize and blue haze a much more reasonable conclusion to draw is that immediately after arriving Rodriguez looked for every shortcut to success he could find. Maybe that’s exactly what Justin Boren meant when he left the Michigan program for Ohio State shortly after Rodriguez was hired citing, essentially, an abandonment of values. From this vantage point, Boren looks positively prescient in his description.

The hard truth that Michigan hasn’t yet faced and apparently Brandon doesn’t want to face even as he awaits his first official day on the job next month is that hiring Rodriguez was a mistake of colossal proportions and that’s never going to change. Rodriguez has an ugly course of conduct that’s firmly established. He stands for nothing, falls for everything and as he’s done so, he’s taken the university down the same drain.

And while apologizing and minimizing every transgression from Rodriguez might feel good, all the university and its fans are really doing is becoming complicit in putting the university and the football program in further jeopardy. Mark my words. If Michigan continues to stick with Rodriguez, whatever success he might find on the field (and he’s found none yet) will come at a huge cost. They may escape this time with a hard slap on the wrist but the next time, and there will be one, Brandon might not get to brag that at least the university wasn’t charged with a loss of institutional control.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Status Quo Ante

There’s been little if any buzz about the recent announcements by the Cleveland Indians regarding current general manager Mark Shapiro and his assistant, Chris Antonetti. But then again maybe that’s because there’s been little if any buzz about the team they plan to put on the field this season.

For those of you too bored to either care or pay attention, at season’s end Shapiro will be leaving the daily grind of general manager duties and the two or three cell phones that job requires at all times for the relatively tranquil environs inside the team’s presidential suite. Antonetti, meanwhile, gets his wish and becomes the new Shapiro.

In corporate terms, this is what’s known as an orderly transition. Larry and Paul Dolan obviously are well pleased with what the team of Shapiro and Antonetti have brought them to date. What all this means then is pretty obvious. As we say in the legal business, status quo ante.

According to Shapiro, Antonetti has been almost functioning as the general manager anyway as he was the key decision-maker in hiring new manager Manny Acta. I’ve always liked Shapiro’s relative honesty, particularly as it contrasts with his brother-in-law Eric Mangini, who treats his lunch order as a state secret. But Shapiro has always fudged things just a little and I suspect that’s true in this case as well. Acta is his hire but the intention of associating him with Antonetti is to avoid any questions that Antonetti might get later about whether or not he desires to put his own guy in place.

In associating Acta with Antonetti, Shapiro is merely trying to avoid the itch he got when he took over the Indians and inherited Mike Hargrove. Shapiro for reasons that still have never been fully explained, didn’t much care for Hargrove and as soon as he got his sea legs in the general manager’s job, pushed Hargrove overboard. At the time and even now, the canning of Hargrove seemed like a move of a newbie general manager just itching to branch out on his own, which is what Shapiro ultimately did when he hired and fired both Charlie Manuel and Eric Wedge. But no such branching out will take place in the near term. Acta is Antonetti’s guy, at least for public consumption.

But back to the real point of all this and that’s the fact that these front office moves have elicited nothing stronger than a yawn from anyone and that includes the usual suspects from our local print media. Not a contrarian among them. Maybe they just see no news value in Shapiro replacing himself with Shapiro, Jr..

This isn’t a knock on Antonetti. By all accounts, he’s a bright guy, just like Shapiro. He operates from the exact same vantage point as Shapiro. With money lacking, they use all manner of statistical analysis to give themselves an edge in finding the right amateurs to draft and the right bottom-feeder free agents to sign.

I suppose you can get picky and point out that the Indians’ self-acknowledged biggest weakness has been its amateur draft and that Antonetti has been overseeing it, but that’s quibbling. No one was going to much argue about Antonetti’s promotion because, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. To say that somehow the Dolans are making some grievous error in keeping things as is would be to ignore all that we already know about how this franchise will be run for the duration of their ownership.

It’s not that the Dolans are cheap, per se. I’ve seen the case made about all the money they’ve spent and while I can argue forcefully to the contrary, the point is that, well, it’s a circular argument. The Indians have been sliding down the payroll ladder for years and the business model firmly in place isn’t going to change until there’s an ownership change.

Besides, with the shadow of Shapiro presiding over everything anyway, it really doesn’t much matter who will sit in the general manager’s chair. It remains Shapiro’s team to run.

In that context, there really is no news in last week’s announcement except that Indians fans don’t have much to look forward to for a long while. Both Shapiro and Antonetti can say with a straight face that they remain committed to bringing this town a championship just like the guy in front of you at the beverage store with a fistful of numbers is just as committed to winning the lottery. You know it isn’t going to happen just as he knows it isn’t going to happen. And yet, if the stars align just right and the ping pong balls come out in just the right order, then it’s Easy Street.

Both Shapiro and Antonetti (not to mention the Dolans) have to know by now that this team is entrenched in a do-loop of mediocrity. Whatever advantage they think they gain from the sophisticated computer programs they run, they still operate in a league that’s economically broken and without nearly the funds to field a team that can compete with the New York Yankees on a regular basis. In other words, the Indians chances each season depend on a 1,000,000,000-1 alignment of the planets, the stars and the galaxies. It could happen, certainly, just as it could happen that Carrie Underwood will show up at your doorstep and proclaim you the man of her dreams, but neither is all that likely.

Put it this way: All of the young talent is nice, but when a team’s major off-season acquisition is Russell Branyan (yes, him again) and that can’t even be officially announced until he passes a physical, what real hope do you have to compete for a World Series?

The evidence of a proud franchise on the fast decline is all around. According to reports, only half of the loges at Progressive Field are rented for the season. Sure, that’s a reflection of the economy, but it’s an even bigger measure of corporate and fan indifference. There’s just no great entertainment value in taking a client to an Indians game these days.

Meanwhile, just across the plaza are the Cavaliers who, operating in the exact same economy, have no trouble selling out at significantly higher prices. It’s easy to attribute it to LeBron James, but that’s just half the story. Danny Ferry has used the resources of a well-heeled owner to field an elite team while Dan Gilbert has ensured a game day experience that makes each home date an event.

Sure, if LeBron James leaves Cleveland the Cavs economics will change dramatically. But something tells me that if that happens Gilbert and Ferry will find a way to field a highly competitive team and keep the fans entertained so that the money will still flow.

At Progressive Field, the Indians have all manner of promotions and sell every kind of food imaginable, but there isn’t really much that has changed about any of it over the years. The Indians’ game day experience still consists of giving away a trinket as a way to divert the fans attention from some really average baseball. When was the last time anything really interesting happened?

But don’t take my word for it. If you want to appreciate the full level of fan indifference, consider this item from this week’s Crain’s Cleveland Business. The Indians apparently have been running a promotion (who knew?) that asks fans to explain their economic circumstances in the form of an essay for the chance to win a 12-pack of tickets. To date, the contest has yielded “nearly” 500 entries.

That doesn’t exactly strike me as a landslide of interest. If the economy was really keeping fans away, wouldn’t something like 5,000 entries have been received by now?

What this all says is that right now there aren’t even a healthy number of people willing to scrawl a few words on a piece of paper in order to get free tickets. If the Indians were smart, they’d just give every entry so far a 12-pack of tickets and call it a day. It may be the only way to get an extra 500 people at the games.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Public Flogging, 101

How does one best make amends for engaging in destructive, selfish conduct? If you’re Tiger Woods or John Edwards or Eliot Spitzer or any number of the growing legions of high profiles who have fallen from their perch, you do it in the most destructive, selfish way possible, by coming clean in a one-and-done press conference on your way to getting on with your life as if nothing ever happened.

On Friday, Woods had a fireside chat of sorts with what his agent dubbed a “small group of friends, colleagues and close associates” and a worldwide audience seemingly hanging on each and every scripted word.

The purpose of this public airing was to allow Woods to begin the process of making amends and apologizing for his reprehensible conduct. If I remember my Seinfeld trivia, it’s step 6. But before I get all George Kostanza about the fact that Woods never personally apologized to me, I’ll exercise patience and heed the words of Woods’ wife Elin and that’s to judge him ultimately by his deeds not his words. That seems eminently fair.

Words fade, actions are far more lasting. Unfortunately, Woods is off to an awful start. A teary-eyed personal rebuke made in the kind of controlled bubble that Woods has always preferred did little to give comfort that he is even in the same zip code with what it will take to turn things around.

But it’s more than just that. It’s also the fact that he did this all in the face of one of the bigger tournaments on his tour’s schedule sponsored by one of his former sponsors. Instantly that tournament becomes a footnote while everyone begins the debate about the ramifications of Woods’ public mea culpa.

You could call the timing of his speech a coincidence, what with Accenture being the first sponsor to dump Woods, but that would be a mistake. Woods does nothing by accident or coincidence. If nothing else, in this little action Woods has reinforced the notion that he’s still as cold and calculating as his transgressions make him out to be.

Maybe he is returning directly to therapy, maybe he’s in a group session right now listening and offering support to Debbie from Ottumwa as she explains her own particular brand of sexual deviance, but yet there seems like plenty of other times he could have taken his public flogging without taking the focus of his colleagues or a former sponsor. But that would have run counter to the clich├ęd rule book of how these things are to be handled as well as the fabled Woods competitiveness.

This is the way athletes like Woods operate. They take every perceived slight and use it as motivation to stick it back in the ear of the offending party. Michael Jordan used this technique often. Woods does the same thing, whether it’s a perceived criticism leveled at him by Vijay Singh’s caddie, or from a sponsor with the temerity to drop him simply because Woods represents nearly every value they’re against.

If Woods really wanted to do something more than express remorse, as in actually demonstrating some, he wouldn’t have turned the golf world’s focus away from the Match Play Championships being placed ¾ of a continent away just to say pre-scripted words of remorse. He would have picked a random Monday, the winter is full of them, and put himself in front of every reporter with a question until they ran out of ways to ask him how many different women he was sleeping with while married. Leave no question unanswered and eventually there will be no questions to answer.

It also would have helped if Woods speech, as heartfelt as it sounded, didn’t come across as the best speech his money could buy. It had all the requisite elements. There was the apology to his family, her family, his friends, her friends. There was the expected lack of excuses for the inexcusable and, of course, the apology to all the sponsors that used to support him. And the kids, we can’t forget about letting them know how sorry we are. These were ticked off like boxes being checked on a list.

But then there was the rather oddly timed commercial for his own foundation as well as the Earl Woods scholars program in the Washington, D.C. area, thrown in to remind everyone that even the flawed can have do good deeds occasionally. And by the way, this body? Woods let us know emphatically that he achieved all on his own, without the help of performance enhancing drugs. Calling out that issue at this moment seemed particularly strange and, yes, a tad selfish.

That’s the problem really, with the speech. In truth I rather doubt that it was Woods’ intention to pump up his accomplishments even as he was taking the beating he so well deserved over his misdeeds, but who really knows? The pervasive (and perverse, apparently) nature of his previous actions will make everyone question his sincerity on any topic until he gives everyone a reason to think otherwise.

If Woods is ever going to escape that kind of scrutiny, and that seems unlikely, then speeches and appearances on Oprah aren’t going to do it. He’s going to have to start living a more purpose-driven life. It isn’t going to be easy for a person who readily admitted that to this point and by his own admission he did whatever he wanted to do whenever he wanted to do it without a thought to the collateral damage that may have been occurring all around him.

Woods has clearly outlined for himself the profile of a man dominated by his own selfishness. Whether he is able to change that picture can’t be judged, let alone known, by listening to a 13-minute speech he probably didn’t write It’s something that will reveal itself only over time and if there’s one thing the public has no patience for it’s time. They want to know right now how sorry Woods might be. They want to know right now if Woods has really changed or merely pushed the bimbos into the shadows for the time being. That is, of course, impossible to know at the moment.

What isn’t impossible to know, though, is that Woods still has some hard lessons to learn. Whatever demons and addictions may be possessing him it’s pretty clear that Woods intends on mostly fighting them with the old weapons that mostly served him well until they didn’t. He admitted he needs help but then offered only the same old excuses for why he won’t talk about any of it. By continuing to give short shrift to the forces that often are far more powerful, Woods has never looked weaker.

Woods noted that his public unraveling has given him a chance to really consider the wreckage that lies in his previous wake. How could it not? He says that he’s been returning to the Buddhism that he used to practice in order to make sense of all the turmoil. That will probably help.

But ultimately what no one could know at the moment, not even Woods, is whether or not these statements will ultimately just be words on a piece of paper to be later auctioned off on EBay or stakes in the ground of a remarkable turnaround.

There’s a saying that “seasons change but people don’t.” If Woods is to defy those odds, he must as he said adhere to the core values that he was taught, presumably as a child. Left unanswered though was whether or not he ever embraced these core values in the first place. Either Woods was once a stand-up guy who always did the right thing but then found himself corrupted by the usual culprits or he was never that stand-up guy in the first place.

If it was the former, then there is certainly hope for him. If it’s the latter, then he risks becoming just someone who has temporarily cleaned up his act, no different really than John Daly.

Anyone who says he knows the real Woods at the moment is delusional. Woods himself has no clue. But maybe there is something we can all finally start agreeing on. No matter when Woods ultimately returns, whether it be with a vengeance or a smile and certainly no matter how many more major tournaments he wins, he’s forever given up any right to be considered the greatest golfer ever. He’s simply too flawed.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Heading Toward Extinction

Football and basketball may be headed for their version of labor wars, but the sport in the most trouble and the least interested in addressing it is baseball. In fact, baseball’s economics make the problems in football and basketball look positively quaint by comparison.

There are a million places you could start with baseball and everyone of them will be right, but I’ll just give you two. On Monday, perennial bottom-feeders, the Washington Nationals, signed Chien-Ming Wang to a $2 million, one-year contract. It includes an opportunity for Wang to earn another $3 million in performance bonuses.

I’m not exactly sure the bonus targets that Wang may have but I’m pretty sure that Steve Carlton in his prime couldn’t achieve whatever it is they may be with the Nationals and Carlton’s a guy that won 27 games for the 1972 Philadelphia Phillies team that only won 59 overall, still among the greatest accomplishments ever in baseball.

So assuming Wang won’t sniff the $3 million in bonuses, that still leaves him with the ability to cash $2 million worth of paychecks, which seems fair, doesn’t it? After all, Ming did go 1-6 last season and had a 9.64 ERA before having shoulder surgery.

You can fault the Nationals front office for being frivolous and chalk it up to the fact that they compete with Congress and the Senate each and every day to see who can out-dumb the other. But all they really are doing is what pretty much every other team outside of the chosen few are doing these days in order to get bodies, particularly pitchers, on the field.

The bigger question this all begs is why anyone would want to invest their time and energy in watching a league that lacks such self-discipline and self-respect. If people think Congress frits away the nation’s money, it’s nothing compared to what baseball does with its fans’ money. I take back every snarky thought I’ve ever had about congressional earmarks that are used to fund vanity projects. The next time I hear about a million bucks going to fund research on spider monkeys I’ll just remember that the Nationals once gave $2 million to a washed up pitcher with a bum shoulder.

As bad as this is, though, it pales in comparison to the Indians offering Russell Branyan a big league contract. I take that back. It pales in comparison to the fact that the Indians have offered Russell Branyan a big league contract and are bidding against two other teams for the privilege of signing him.

I should probably offer a disclaimer before going any further about how baseball has to be on the verge of an apocalypse if Branyan at his age (I think he’s about 173 years old), or Branyan at any age, can still manage to get teams to sign him for millions.

I’m not a Branyan fan. In fact, I once wrote a short story where Branyan was the protagonist. It was published on these very pages, in fact. The point of this mostly fictional story, as near as I can recall, was that Branyan had such little plate discipline that someone from the crowd could probably take the mound and strike him out. In fact, I’m still willing to put up some money that this could be the case.

Indeed, Branyan isn’t just an incredibly lousy hitter, he’s equally bad in the field. It made me chuckle to read that the Indians see Branyan as offering protection at three positions—first base, outfield and designated hitter. Let’s be honest here. Branyan offers protection only in the sense that he’s a slight improvement over actually not having someone play those positions. I don’t mean that pejoratively, either. I mean it actually. If, say, Manny Acta one day, while filling out the line up card, asked himself “would I be worse off defensively if I had no one play third base or I put Branyan in there” it would take him until the third inning to come up with an answer.

I was at an Indians game years ago with my oldest daughter. It was June 10, 2001, a Sunday. We had great seats about 10 rows behind the Indians’ dug out. Jaret Wright was on the mound, still trying to come back from his own arm and shoulder problems. It was a beautiful day, except for the fact that Wright got his brains bashed in against the Cincinnati Reds, giving up 8 runs in 1 1/3 innings.

But the day wasn’t a total wash out. Branyan started in left field and had a throwing error in the first inning that helped Wright come unglued. In the 6th inning, he moved to third base and promptly offered up another throwing error. Two in one game and from entirely different positions. Try to find that kind of achievement duplicated elsewhere. Good look Elias Sports Bureau.

And that was when Branyan was in his prime. Over the years, Branyan hasn’t gotten any better at anything. Although he’s never played a full season in his career, the reason Branyan keeps sticking around is the result of his occasional ability to hit the long ball. According to baseball-reference.com, Branyan’s career statistics project out to 162-game average of 30 home runs, 73 RBI. To general managers like Mark Shapiro, trolling for players like hobos scan the sand at a beach for coins with a metal detector, these numbers look pretty good.

What Shapiro and his ilk always overlook in a “yea, but” sort of way is the fact that the value added by these 30 home runs is more than offset by the rest of what comes with it.

Look at it this way. Branyan is a .234 hitter who strikes out nearly 40% of the time. Assuming 5 at bats per game, Branyan will strike out twice, game in and game out. That goes along with the two other outs he’ll make, game in and game out, all the while giving the team the equivalent of 1 hit per game. And for all that, once a week one of those hits will be a home run.

Last season Branyan “earned” $1.4 million playing for Seattle. Because Tampa Bay and Boston supposedly are also in the mix for his limited services, that means Branyan is likely to command even more this season. And that’s the rub.

In any other era, Branyan would long since have been out of baseball. He’s awful in the field, awful at the plate and yet hangs around because teams can’t seem to help tripping over themselves to literally throw millions at him in the continued but failed hope that he can deliver more than an occasional, majestic shot over the center field fence.

I certainly don’t begrudge Branyan sticking around to take the money. If someone was willing to give you a winning million dollar lottery ticket every year and all you had to do was show up and wave at the ball, wouldn’t you do it, too?

The people I begrudge are the Shapiros of the world and the owners that let them throw that kind of money away while pinching pennies elsewhere. Talk about stepping over a dollar to pick up a dime. There isn’t even one credible scenario that I can imagine where any team signing Branyan for that kind of money makes any sense.

For Cleveland, Branyan brings absolutely nothing to the roster. Even if he helps them win an extra game or two (a feat I herewith deem impossible), that won’t make any difference in the standings. The Indians have absolutely no chance of getting to the playoffs this season anyway so why waste even one roster spot on someone like Branyan?

For Tampa Bay and Boston, two teams fighting for the playoffs where winning one more game could be crucial, you could make the argument that if he helps either win at least that one more game than he’s worth the investment. But that’s assuming that in the process of helping you win that one more game he doesn’t cost you a few in the process.

I’ve watched Branyan play over the years with a bit of perverse fascination and I can tell you unequivocally that if you march him out there day in and day out, he’ll cost you more games than he’ll help you win. With his track record you can rest assured that more than a few times he’ll strike out at some crucial moment with runners in scoring position. And if you deploy him in spot duty, the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against you that he’ll do anything more than simply take up space. You’d be better off with a space heater.

If you want to take it even a step further, signing Branyan at even league minimum makes no sense. At that price I would much rather have literally anyone on the AAA roster instead. At least with a younger player there is the illusion of hope. With Branyan, and all the players like him, there isn’t even that illusion.

But as much as this is about Branyan it’s not about Branyan at all. It’s about the fact that baseball economics are a mess, the number of competitive teams has dwindled down to a few and instead of fixing the problem they keep adding to it by paying millions of dollars to players that by now should be working at Big Lots.

I don’t pretend to understand why baseball keeps inflicting the same old wounds on itself each year but I do understand the ramifications. Professional baseball should now officially be declared an endangered species, like the giant panda, and treated similarly, meaning that unless there is drastic action soon, it too is heading for extinction.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Lingering Items--Clean Up Edition

Cleaning up after the Super Bowl…

It’s been a week since the Super Bowl, which is plenty of time to digest the implications. With the New Orleans Saints winning, coupled with the Bidwell-owned Arizona Cardinals in the game last year, the tendency is to conclude that every dog has its day.

Well, every dog does have its day. I never thought that I’d see the Cleveland Indians in the playoffs and then when it happened in 1995 I couldn’t believe how overwhelmingly satisfying it felt. Watching one of the best Tribe teams ever assembled hoist an AL Central Champs flag was a sight I’ll never forget and neither will any other long-suffering Indians fan.

All of this means, of course, that eventually the Cleveland Browns will have their day. Or will they? At the moment, it all just feels so impossibly off in a future not even imagined. It’s not necessary for me to go through the litany of near misses for this franchise. By now it should have been in at least two Super Bowls and probably would have won one of the them.

Instead, we have a franchise that, once again, is still learning to crawl in a straight line without banging its head on the furniture. That’s not to say that the future isn’t brighter with the “Mike Holmgren Experience’ digging a deeper foothold each day. It is. But the talent level on this team is still so far below that of what was seen on Super Bowl Sunday from either team that looking up is almost a fruitless exercise.

As I watched the game and went position-by-position in my mind it was hard to find almost anywhere that a Browns’ counterpart would start for either team, outside of Joe Thomas and Josh Cribbs. There may be a few other positions where you could have a healthy debate, but generally speaking, and no disrespect intended to a modest 4-game win streak against teams in similarly poor shape, the Browns still seem like light years away from competing at that level.

It’s a cold slap in the face that can only be overcome by faith, and I don’t necessarily just mean in God. Instead, you have to put your faith in people like new general manager Tom Heckert to actually hit on good draft choices more than occasionally. At this point, there simply is little if no room for error.

Of course logic would suggest that Heckert can’t help but hit on draft picks if only because this team is so talent-starved in the first place. But that logic didn’t exactly hold for his predecessors. Year after year they’d manage to bungle 4 or 5 draft picks for teams similarly depleted, which only furthered that gap between them and nearly every other team.

But Heckert has to be different if the Browns are ever going to close that gap to a manageable distance. If instead he suddenly becomes mediocre at making talent evaluations then this Browns fans can kiss off another decade as well as this dog won’t have its day then, either.

**

Speaking of the Super Bowl, I’m not sure why I find this story fascinating but I do. Dan LeBatard, the sports writer for the Miami Herald, wrote a semi-humorous piece about partying with, among others, Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Bryant McKinnie, during Super Bowl week.

The story focused on McKinnie’s hard-partying ways but had an interesting, if fading, Browns connection. It seems that LeBatard was with McKinnie as he binged on whatever he could get his hands on, including about 20 grand worth of champagne. But as hard as McKinnie tried, according to LeBatard, he’d end up losing the bottle buying war that evening to, wait for it, Braylon Edwards. Where McKinnie bought 36 bottles, Edwards’ far outpaced him with 51.

That means between the two they bought 87 bottles of champagne for the patrons, or a sub group of patrons, of the night club Cameo that night. If you’re like me you may be wondering why the club happened to have 87 bottles of champagne on hand that night for purchase. Maybe they knew McKinnie and Edwards were on patrons list for the night and ran out and bought extra.

Putting that aside, it’s actually fun to see Edwards pissing away his money in that fashion. He’s been pissing away his talent so why not follow it with actual money as opposed to the potential money he won’t be getting because of all those dropped balls. His living large/looking stupid moment during Super Bowl week captures the essence of why he was such a lousy fit in Cleveland on so many levels and yet it’s only the second best story about Edwards and champagne this season.

It seems that shortly after arriving in New York via the Eric Mangini Express, Edwards was out at a night club when he spotted the pop singer Rihanna. Hoping to impress her, Edwards sent over a bottle of champagne (what else?) only to have her send it back in a “who the heck is that?” sort of way. When I heard that I went out and downloaded every Rihanna song on iTunes.

Edwards is clearly turning into a cautionary tale of excess and he has McKinnie as the near-perfect role model. Living beyond their means (Edwards has plenty of money but not plenty of stupid money, at least at this point in his flagging career) is just one of the symptoms. Pretty soon performance will fall off. McKinnie, for one, was kicked off the Pro Bowl team for missing a few practices which were attributable to his late night activities. For Edwards, the fall off will be harder to tell.

Another interesting side light to this story is that it was almost a year ago in Miami that Edwards infamously spent the night drinking with Donte Stallworth. Apparently the only lesson Edwards got out of any of that was not to drink and drive.

When it all comes crashing in on Edwards, and it will, there will be few that will shed a tear for him. He’s always carried himself as one of the entitled without having the resume to back it up. As he ventures further out on the limb, just be glad he’s some other team’s problem.

**

Cleaning up after the NBA All Star game…

The NBA All Star excess weekend just ended, somewhere around midnight Monday morning with Dwayne Wade besting LeBron James for MVP. While it was a feel good weekend for the NBA and its various and sundry hanger-ons just looking for any reason to have a party, the league is in the process of facing down its own labor strife.

In a column last week I talked about the storm clouds on the horizon in the NFL in the form of negotiations for its next labor contract. It looks like that may just be a warm up for a much bigger storm in the NBA.

The league’s contract isn’t up for another year but the parties have already started negotiating for a new contract. On the table, from the owners’ perspective, are major cuts in the salary cap along with major changes in how it works. Oh yea, they’d also like to eliminate fully guaranteed contracts.

The NBA players’ union is understandably upset and is itself taking a strident view of it all, as in “you want a fight you got a fight.”

The owners can point to the economy as the rationale behind its move and the union can point to the league’s worldwide popularity as the basis for its positions. But the wild card here is the involvement of player agents, particularly those representing the super free agent class graduating at the end of this season. They have always been the muscle behind an otherwise weak union.

The impact of the owners’ proposals on the likes of players like James, Wade and the rest of the free-agents-to-bed is dramatic. Sure, those level of players will get whatever maximum contracts are allowed, but a hard salary cap in particular will make it more difficult for teams to build around them and create the kind of teams the San Antonio Spurs, the Los Angeles Lakers and now the Cavs have built. Those teams now exploit every available loophole in a weak and loose salary cap. Presumably much of that ability would be lost if a hard cap were put in place. With less money to spend, teams will end up filling out their rosters like the NFL does, with low priced, undrafted free agents.


For those Cavs fans unable to enjoy this season knowing that James could leave when it’s all over, this just adds another level to their paranoia. The Cavs can pull off major deals now but if the league’s salary cap and structure change, it will be hard pressed to field a team where the salaries of James, Mo Williams, Shaquille O’Neal and whoever else the Cavs might land in a trade can fit.

That doesn’t mean James might be any more prone to leave but it does mean that teams that currently are dumping salary may be far better positioned for what could be the NBA’s future when it comes to landing the marquee free agents. Teams like the Cavs, on the other hand, could find themselves in salary cap hell and unable to extricate themselves for years.

Solving the NBA’s problems will be a lot harder than the NFL’s but eventually saner minds will find a middle ground. But until that happens, it all just becomes another factor for James and his agent to consider as they ponder his next move.

**

And something to chew on…

As I watched Carrie Underwood, resplendent as she was in her all-white body suit, sing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl, the question occurred to me: why are country singers attracted to hockey players and not, say, part time writers on Cleveland-based sports web sites?

Monday, February 08, 2010

Labor Pains

If the NFL’s labor situation works out like it should, the players will go on strike at the end of next season just as the Cleveland Browns are poised to make a legitimate run at the playoffs in 2011.

It will work that way because that’s the kind of curse this franchise has been more or less operating under since it returned. It also will work out that way for the same reason that Clemenza felt a war between the families was necessary every 5 years or so—it gets rid of all the bad blood.

The NFL Players Association and the NFL Management Council are on a collision course at the moment, a semi-high stakes game of chicken as they both run toward the edge of a cliff that is still just a spec in the distance. But each day the representatives of each, DeMaurice Smith for the union and Roger Goodell for the owners, posture and preen draws them one step closer to mutual self-destruction.

Not to get all dramatic about this, but the NFL and its union once again threaten to kill the goose laying their golden eggs. Sure, as Goodell said in his “State of the NFL” address before Sunday’s Super Bowl, an agreement will eventually come. But it’s more than just a matter of “when.” It’s also a matter of how much blood will be spilled getting there.

The last time these two parties were at odds this early in the process was, not coincidentally, the last time there was a strike. In 1987, the owners and players went to war over free agency and the right size piece the players would get of the owners’ economic pie. A few games into the season the union decided to strike and the owners responded by essentially hiring replacement players. The union had no credible back up plan and the strike was a colossal disaster.

That 1987 strike wasn’t without its collateral damage on the owners, however. They may have broken the union’s spirit well enough, but their credibility took a huge hit. The one positive aspect out of it, however, was that the parties learned a lesson and an unprecedented level of peace has followed since. Clemenza was right.

The last collective bargaining agreement these parties signed was in 2006. As you may recall, the issues then were fairly contentious and a strike seemed to be looming but then Commission Paul Tagliabue strong-armed the owners into making a deal they have since regretted. In large part, Tagliabue’s “retirement” was accelerated because of the animosity among the owners toward him for forcing on them a deal that they believe has hurt them dramatically ever since.

This is where personalities enter into the fray. Goodell was hired, in large measure, to take a much stronger stand with the union this time around. He’s saying all the right things at the moment but don’t think for one moment that he is mistaken about his charge. And the main charge is to get back some of the revenue that Tagliabue gave away.

On the union’s side of things, they’ve been sitting fat and happy with that 2006 contract and can’t conceive of any give backs. Gene Upshaw, who was leading the union at the time, was a bit of a hero though he quickly thereafter faced a growing insurrection from older members of the union and retirees about what they perceive as indifference to their issues. Although the parties involved denied it, there was a move to oust him as well but Upshaw succumbed to cancer before the movement was fully realized.

Enter Smith, the Washington D.C. lawyer who surprisingly won the runoff election last year to lead the union in this upcoming fight. Smith, showing he’s no slouch at the rhetoric game, told the assembled media at his version of the “State of the NFL” address this past weekend that on a scale of 1 to 10, it’s a 14 that his members will get locked out by management.

It’s early, I suppose, so you have to take this kind of goofy saber rattling with a grain of salt. But as hard as the owners claim they are working on the issues, it still comes down to their demand to shrink the size of the union’s pie. Whatever ancillary issues are clattering around are just noise, and that includes any talk by the union that if 2010 is an uncapped year it will never again agree to a salary cap.

The overlay to all of this is the tough economic conditions. It would certainly have helped the owners cause had these negotiations started last year but no one anticipates a miraculous recovery in the economy any time soon so the issues will still be mostly ripe when they get around to talking in earnest.

If forced to make a prediction at the moment, it would be that there will be some sort of work stoppage in the NFL before the start of the 2011 season and it most likely will take the form of a lockout. The union is a little smarter than they were in 1987 and the owners won’t risk a midseason disruption in the form of a strike. A lockout is preemptive.

It may be that a lockout will be necessary but another prediction I’ll make at the moment is that when it’s all over there will be sufficient handwringing on both sides about how unnecessary all of it was. The union will accede, to a point, on the owners’ economic demands to redefine the applicable revenue pool downward while the owners will acquiesce to collateral issues like pensions, health care and the like.

The arc of emotions for the fan start with anxiety and end with relief. In between is a healthy amount of sympathy, empathy, anger and confusion. For the most part though fans can’t seem to understand how millionaires and billionaires can’t easily and peacefully figure out how to divide such riches.

That’s the biggest red herring in all of this. The money involved is just a matter of scale. At its core, though, are the same sorts of issues that employers and employees of all stripes fight over all the time. No matter your particular economic situation in life, you still want to feel like you’ve been dealt with fairly by your employer and that goes for professional athletes.

That being said, my patience and tolerance for this kind of distraction in professional sports grows thinner as the years roll by. The billions involved complicate the issues but ultimately what the sides are fighting about is how to best entertain the millions that follow them. They hardly provide a vital service. If professional sports were eliminated from the planet tomorrow, in a few short weeks almost everyone would find something else to do.

That really should be the wake up call for both Smith and Goodell. Their own livelihoods are made possible by the ridiculous lengths fans will go to support their ventures. They can continue to position themselves to look as good as possible in front of their own constituencies, but this isn’t 1958 anymore. The distractions vying for everyone’s times are 100-fold more than they were then. Keep pushing the fan base around long enough and eventually it will stop pushing back, mostly because it will have long since lost interest.

Monday, February 01, 2010

All In

It’s quiet time in Cleveland at the moment. That’s a good thing for it means the Browns’ season and attendant drama is behind us, the Indians season is still a little too far away to get excited about and the Cavs, well, they just keep on winning.

But just as losing brings a whole set of issues, so too does winning. Perhaps the biggest issue at the moment is whether the Cavs should try to improve their odds by further deepening an already deep team.

To do that, though, requires all sorts of manipulation with the current roster because of the intricacies of the NBA’s salary cap. Just know, though, that most scenarios involve parting with Zydrunas Ilgauskas because he has an expiring contract that is attractive to teams looking to build for the future and needing the salary cap space to do it.

That’s a major hard spot for almost any Cavs fan, and I include Danny Ferry in that statement. Ferry hasn’t said much but cutting ties with Ilgauskas would likely be the most difficult decision, by a large margin, in his front office career. Ferry and Ilgauskas were teammates at one time. Beyond that, Ferry has great respect for Ilgauskas and made signing him to his last contract a priority.

Then, of course, is all the internal politics of what an Ilgauskas-less Cavs team really means. Owner Dan Gilbert has repeatedly said that he is “all in” for this season, meaning he’s willing to do what it takes to bring a championship and, by extension, convince free agent to be LeBron James that this is the place where he wants to finish his career. But exactly what does “all in” really mean?

Ilgauskas is certainly still a valued contributor to the Cavs. But at this stage in his career and, objectively speaking, there are others out there, some of whom are available, that can potentially make a larger impact in the stretch run.

But Ilgauskas brings the intangibles of history and association with him. He has seen every high and low in his 12-year career with the Cavs. He’s been on 17-win teams and 66-win teams. He’s packed early for the offseason and also stayed late. He’s fought injuries, some career threatening, and worked as hard as any athlete you’re ever likely to meet to rehabilitate. His jersey will hang from the rafters at the Q no matter what happens.

In a city where this kind of devotion to one team is rare, Ilgauskas stands out the same way Andre Thornton did. He may be a player on the last lap of his career but he’s not exactly hanging from the bottom rung physically or emotionally just yet. His minutes are still meaningful. Cavs finds still identify with and respect him greatly.

Then there is the issue of how parting with Ilgauskas could affect how people view James or even how James views himself. Whether fair or not, if Ilgauskas is traded James won’t be able to escape responsibility for it because if done it will be in the name of winning a championship now and not as most of these kinds of partings are done--in some sort of late season salary dump.

Theoretically every team is in it to win a championship. But the urgency in Cleveland stems from James’ contract status. Thus, the decision on whether to trade Ilgauskas becomes as much moral as practical. What do the Cavs and James stand for?

Most of this would probably be moot if James had already committed to the Cavs beyond this season. But that isn’t going to happen. Something that could happen would be for James to meet privately with Ferry and Gilbert immediately and tell them that Ilgauskas needs to finish out the season here. James has to let them know that he believes the Cavs, with Ilgauskas, can win now and that he won’t hold them responsible if it doesn’t quite work out that way. That would give everyone involved the right level of cover should the Cavs ultimately fall short in June.

That course of action ultimately is also the safest. As the Cavs have seen in the past, late season trades aren’t necessarily the answer anyway. Fitting new players into a team in late February in the NBA is far more difficult than fitting new players into a team in late July in major league baseball.

Baseball is a team sport in name only but functions more as a group of affiliated individuals. Cliff Lee pitched just as effectively for Philadelphia as he did in Cleveland and it didn’t really much matter who else was on the field. An NBA team on the other hand, is most effective when the players are working as a team. Allen Iverson is a great individual talent but he really didn’t make the Denver Nuggets a better team.

A NBA team, particularly one legitimately vying for a championship, already has a chemistry built by the time a deadline trade gets made and it generally doesn’t respond well when disrupted even with players that may objectively be better.

Indeed, the Cavs are a prime example. It’s not so much that their late season trades have set the team back in that season. It’s just that most of these trades worked in the subsequent year better, after an intervening training camp.

That’s why I was so unsure of how the Cavs would have fared last season had they made the trade for Shaquille O’Neal in February instead of the off-season. O’Neal was having a good season in Phoenix, but he’s not exactly a hand-in-glove fit for every team. It’s taken nearly half of this season to truly find O’Neal’s niche as it is.

The one sense of comfort you can get from all of this is that it’s the Cavs dealing with this issue and not either the Browns or the Cavs. In fact, that holds true for the even bigger iceberg heading their way with James in the form of what will surely become known, for good or worse, as “The Decision.”

There may be a Cleveland curse when it comes to sports but much of that curse is traceable to raging competency within the ownership and front offices of those two franchises for all these years. The Cavs used to be in that same boat, of course, but then Gilbert bought the team and systematically went about changing all of that, proving that it can be done.

That doesn’t guarantee that the decisions the Cavs will make will be right, but what it does guarantee is that the decisions being made will be made on the best information at the time, which is all you can ever ask and more than fans usually get.

Just remember, though, that even with having the best information at hand, it’s a huge gamble with an uncertain outcome. But if the Cavs really are in an “all in” mode, they knew that already.